Music and the internet: towards a digital sociology of music

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Languages Cultures Art History & Music


Music and the internet: towards a digital sociology of music (Digsocmus) is an interdisciplinary research project that aims to provide the first comprehensive analysis of the changing cultural roles of the internet in music. Taking as its historical focus a twenty-year period ranging from the early take up of the world wide web to the present day world of social media platforms, and taking as its empirical focus a series of music genres known for innovative experimentation with the internet, it responds to three overarching research questions:

1) Have uses of the internet contributed to greater boundary crossing between 'art' and 'popular' musics? ('Crossover')

2) Has the internet affected an expansion or diversification of the geographical reach of contemporary genres? ('Geography')

3) To what extent have the institutions that provide for the production and distribution of music been reshaped by the internet? ('Disintermediation')

The project will take a comparative case study approach. It will analyse four 'born digital' music genres whose respective geneses coincide with important periods in the cultural development of the internet and world wide web, and whose aesthetics, politics, geographical extent, and supporting institutions have all been shaped by these developments. The case studies will be:

1) Mid-90s: experimental electronica

2) Early-00s: network music and live coding

3) Mid-00s-present: cassette tape revivalism (noise, drone music and DIY)

4) 2010s-present: post-internet music (audio-visual composition, net art, vaporwave)

Although they vary, each of the genres has substantial and innovative online manifestations that are central to their definitions and to how they are experienced by musicians, audiences and promoters. These range from the use of mailing lists to organise independent communicational channels, often merging art and popular musics (study 1); to the adoption of the internet as a live performance medium for geographically-distributed performance (2); to a reactionary move offline and towards the mail order exchange of cassette tapes, often bypassing mainstream institutions (3); and then to a subversive and critical engagement with the modern day world of social media and commercial webspace (4).

The range and diversity of uses of the internet over this 20-year period demand new approaches to the analysis and theorisation of music for which online practices are central. A major conceptual and methodological contribution of this research, then, will be to analyse these genres using social data science, or 'big data' methods. Informed by the research questions, and mixing qualitative and quantitative approaches, these tailored methods will analyse and visualise data from 'natively digital' mediums like forums, mailing lists, and social media platforms, thereby taking the analysis of online music beyond the reach of a single researcher. By mixing these approaches with ethnography and history, the project will stake out a bold new direction in digital musicology: the digital sociology of music.

The leadership activities are designed to support Haworth's development to becoming an international research leader. A visiting fellowship at the University of Amsterdam will place him in close contact with the leading figures in digital research, providing new opportunities for collaboration and publication. The international conference will allow him to collaboratively shape a new subfield of digital musicology, while also impacting on a new generation of digital musicologists. Finally, his international standing outside of academia will be enhanced by workshops at international festivals where musicians, industry professionals, and audiences will be invited to collaborate: first, in debating the themes of crossover, geography and disintermediation in relation to the genres; and second, in designing and shaping the digital methods themselves (see WP5.1).

Planned Impact

Digsocmus will achieve lasting cultural impact through an innovative programme of knowledge co-production ('ethnographic collaboration') that is folded in with the intellectual goals of the project. The research participants will include: creative practitioners associated with the case studies; music industry professionals associated with the independent record labels that support the genres; and audiences and members of the public with interests in electronic music. By bringing these normally disparate groups together to debate the themes and findings of the project, and by building and nurturing a mutually enriching collaborative dialogue with them, Digsocmus aims to 1) enhance the interdisciplinary knowledge and skills of the stakeholders, 2) influence the programming of major electronic music festivals, and 3) create a new public understanding of the aesthetic, social, and institutional changes to musical production in the age of the internet.

The ethnographic collaboration will take place during the following on and off-line activities: 1) collaborative workshops at Mutek festival, Montréal; CTM/Transmediale, Berlin; and Music Tech Fest; 2) a residency at Access Space, Sheffield; and 3) a 'Twitter takeover' in co-ordination with the international festivals

1) The collaborative workshops will each be organised around one of the three research themes of crossover, geography and disintermediation. They will take the form of organised public debates on the given theme, with invited contributions drawn from a mixture of artists, record label owners, journalists, audiences, and representatives of the festival.

2) At Access Space, the Fellow will work with Alex McLean, one of the founders of the international 'live coding' movement, to brainstorm social data science methods for the analysis of live coding's online communities. Using digital archives McLean holds, he and the fellow will collaboratively design text-mining methods oriented to the 'crossover' research theme (WP5.1).

3) In collaboration with international festivals, the fellow will 'takeover' their Twitter feeds to interact directly with online practitioners and audiences associated with the genres, both to strengthen and consolidate existing links, and reach new audiences ('takeover' means having control of their popular Twitter page for a defined period). As well as debating on Twitter, those that interact will be directed to a wiki page where, similarly to in the workshops, they will be invited to debate early comparative interpretations in open online exchanges.

To consolidate the results of the workshops, and deepen the impact of the findings, a discussion session will be organised featuring invited contributors drawn from the collaborative workshops, residency, and Twitter takeover. This will result in a statement to be published in the festival booklets for Mutek, CTM, and/or Music Tech Fest. As well as reflecting on the process of collaborating with the stakeholder groups, the statement will make critical recommendations concerning the programming of electronic music events. This will include: 1) how they may achieve geographical diversity and challenge geographical inequality in electronic music; 2) how the 'divide' between art and popular electronic musics may be productively challenged; and 3) how we may achieve sustainable on and offline music industries in a technological ecosystem dominated by a small number of internet companies.

With histories of early computing and the internet currently booming in popular culture - demonstrated by museum exhibitions, television programmes, and features in broadsheet newspapers - these events will chime with a growing public interest in, and understanding of, the project's themes and historical foci. In addition to the collaborative workshops, the aforementioned festivals will all be used as venues within which to share the benefits of the research beyond academia via public talks and seminars.
Title Afro | Algo Futures performances @ Vivid Projects 
Description A showcase event for (Algo|Afro) Futures, celebrating the work four early-career Black artists who, since April 2021, have been exploring the creative potential of live coding. The event featured pre-recorded and live performances and artworks from the artists, and was streamed live from Vivid Projects in Birmingham, in front of a local (socially distanced) audience. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact This event has so far received 1,315 views online 
Description Music and the Internet: Towards a digital sociology of music brought together historical and contemporary case studies to explore both how web technologies are reshaping musical communication, and how these changes give rise to new ways of analysing, interpreting and knowing music. We found that web-based digital methods, when allied with interpretive, qualitative and historical forms of insight, can significantly further the cultural analysis of contemporary music, while also casting established musicological themes-- like subculture, art-pop crossover, and musical geography--in a new light. The project provided important new work on genres that have been underexplored in musicology, including hyperpop, live coding, cassette tape experimentalism and network music. It also offered new perspectives on more established genres that owe their definition to the early web, like rave, electronica and industrial music.

As a broadcast medium (like the telephone), the internet's effects on music are harder to quantify than were it an inscription medium (like the phonograph or musical notation). Indeed, contemplating music in the web age revives questions about music's medium specificity, since rather than affecting purely sonic qualities, the web acts on musical mediality, sociability, and communication all at once. Comparing historical and contemporary instances of music's encounters with the web illuminated just how changeable these material and ideological mediations of electronic music have been in the short life of the web. For instance, early subcultural engagements with the web often remediated the style of punk, cyberpunk, and industrial culture zines, asserting an association with independent, grassroots musical media, and aligning with early hopes about the web's ability to enhance participatory democracy and flatten institutional hierarchies. In more contemporary musics, mediation increasingly flows in the opposite direction as web-idiomatic communication like trolling and memeing suffuses musical expression and reception. Indeed, post-internet genres like hyperpop call for an understanding of internet communication as everyday communication, placing pressure on the online/offline, real/virtual distinctions that supervised turn-of-the-millenium work on music and the internet.

Across a series of web-based methods, including YouTube comment analysis, historical website ecology analysis, discourse analysis, and social network analysis, we explored the expanded life of music online. A visiting fellowship in the Media Department at University of Amsterdam facilitated an ongoing collaboration with the Digital Methods Initiative and Open Intelligence Lab research groups, which has enhanced capacity within the research team and beyond. Some case studies dove into historical mailing lists and fora to analyse the wax and wane of musical subcultural theory and the often-giddy collisions between high and low culture that characterised the early years of the muscial web. Others followed music into the endless comment threads underneath YouTube videos to map such themes as music's refraction of intergenerational identity politics. Overall, we advocated for a flexible and situated approach to digital methods' use in relation to internet-mediated musics. Just as the internet cannot be reduced to one ensemble of uniform effects, there is no one-size-fits-all method appropriate to music's and social and cultural analysis online.
Exploitation Route To date, digital musicology has tended to put computational analysis to the service of existing musicological themes. As such, an emphasis on the lives, works, and performances of composers or instrumentalists who flourished before the age of the internet prevails within the field. By contrast, this project sought to define the digital sociology of music as the study of music, mediality and sociality in born-online and online-mediated contexts. Web-idiomatic social data analysis methods were part of this, and they have assisted in analysing the changing relations between music and internet communication over a thirty-year period. At the same time, we have advocated for the use of such methods to supplement and extend contextual scholarship, including critical listening and interpretation. The benefits of this project will primarily be felt in music disciplines including digital musicology, contemporary music, sound studies, and music and the internet studies.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The collaboration with FoAM / Kernow (now 'Now Try This') and live coders Antonio Roberts and Alex McLean led to a new mentoring initiative directed at early career Black Artists in the West Midlands. The collaboration arose in part from Haworth's longstanding ethnographic work with live coding communities, and was developed in a collaborative dialogue on the topic of how to widen participation in live coding, while also acknowledging experimental electronic music's debt to Black musicians and intellectuals. This is now an annual initiative. The project, conference, ensuing publications, and digital methods workshops are already being cited in academic calls for papers as evidence of a nucleating field of research around music and the internet and the digital sociology of music.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Digital Methods for Musicologists
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The workshops equip early career and established researchers with the knowledge and tools to research and teach the study of musical issues online.
Description Accelerating embedded computational analysis of Web data about music in UK universities
Amount £202,700 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/X007316/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2023 
End 01/2024
Description Research England's Quality-related Research Strategic Priorities Funding
Amount £9,572 (GBP)
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Department Research England
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2022 
End 04/2022
Title Historical web page analysis 
Description This method captures and visualises Named Entities in the source code of web pages so that a page's 'visibility' to a search engine can be analysed. Where other methods visualise 'outlinks' from a website to other destinations online, this method visualises a form of 'inlink' -- ie the terms that can be entered to discover a particular webpage in a search engine. The method can be used to generate alternative social networks for web pages that date from before about 1997 (after which time, search analytics changed). 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact So far the main impact is on my own research group 
Description (Algo|Afro)futures 
Organisation FoAM Kernow
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution I have been researching live coding for several years, with some focus on access and inclusion. Furthermore, live coding is a key case study in the project. The initiative was guided by this previous research, and by collaboration with Alex McLean and Antonio Roberts.
Collaborator Contribution The partners are established electronic musicians with expertise in live coding performance and software design. They have designed the mentoring programme and the website, and they will deliver the workshops (which start in April 2021).
Impact This is a multi-disciplinary collaboration involving musicology and creative coding.
Start Year 2021
Description Hyperpossible at Coventry Biennale of Contemporary Art 2021 
Organisation Coventry UK City of Culture
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Consultant and collaborator on one-day symposium as part of the 'Hyperpossible' events at Coventry Biennale 2021-22.
Collaborator Contribution The collaborators are Ryan Hughes, the director of the Coventry Biennale, and Michael Piggot, the curator. Both are organising the Biennale, and I have been invited as a consultant and co-organiser for a syposium looking at British cyberculture in the 1990s.
Impact The first output is an event to take place on 11 December 2021. The disciplines it covers are contemporary art, art history, film and music.
Start Year 2021
Description Between Sound and Concept 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact CCRU Between Sound And Concept was a day of talks and presentations on the musical and sonic legacies of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, one of the three historical Coventry and Warwickshire-based art groups that the HYPER-POSSIBLE events focused on, and a case study in the project. Speakers / interrlocuters included Steve Goodman who releases music as Kode9 and is the founder of Hyperdub records; Robin Mackay, founder of Urbanomic publishing; authors McKenzie Wark, Amy Ireland, Keir Milburn, and Niall Gallen; and the electronic musicians Antonio Roberts and Rosa Francesca. The event was sold out early, and was livestreamed to several hundred viewers on YouTube. It has raised a great deal of interest and requests for subsequent activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The activity is a project blog
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Interview on electronic music and cyberculture in the 1990s 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The activity relates to case study 1 of the project. It is part 1 of an ethnographic interview I conducted with the founder of Collapse journal and Urbanomic Press about his activities in relation to cyberculture and electronic music in the 1990s. The interview was very widely shared on social media and sparked interest in the project. It also placed the PI in dialogue with several other important figures in the scene.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Talk in Electronic Dance Music Seminar at University of Manchester 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This research seminar was a roundtable with three speakers presenting on issues in Electronic Dance Music. The researcher presented 'Post-racial rhetoric and delusion Dubstep Heads: Mapping the power dynamics of 'open source philosophy' in electronic dance music web fora' to disseminate findings from the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023